This musical “back and forth” movement is a myth of intersubjectivity which is directly opposed to the more disjunct sense that Hejinian describes in the preface to Writing is an Aid to Memory:
I am always conscious of the disquieting runs of life slipping by, that the message remains undelivered, opposed to me. Memory cannot, through the future return, and proffer raw conclusions...Abridgement is foolish, like lopping off among miracles; yet times is not enough. Necessity is the limit with forgetfulness, but it remains undefined. Memory is the girth, or again.[i]
The main difference between Ashbery and Hejinian is that Hejinian does not presuppose the interaction between subjectivity and writing to be an easy passage, a musical to and fro productive of the poem unit with the aim of “going on.” For what happens when one cannot go on any more? Paratactic syntax is not endless, it is proscribed by number and thus by size, and whilst we all now know abridgement is foolish in relation to postmodern poetry, the poem must always be girthed and so a form of abridgement. The implications of this logic for the double “you” of thought and process, or memory and writing, are considered in section 22 of Writing is an Aid to Memory:
compound is done mind
I do mind
in retrospect when I was watching it
focus tries a world stated simplified white year
I won’t forget you
I fell back
loud sign dices stuck
rip numbers the middle
a piece with middle of deliberate possibility
one under star
off a fork
list of mine nervous
more more than nine[ii]
Again reading this as a kind of allegory of composition one can note that “compound is done mind” is a massive overhaul of the trope of expressive autobiography that we have inherited from Romanticism, as it replaces the still pervasive concept of organic form with the much more post-modern sense of form as compound. And whilst it concedes the role of the poetic subject as the following lines show this “I” is in effect more akin to the “you” watching itself as an “it” in retrospect. The promise of memory, “I won’t forget you,” is then followed by a slippage, “I fell back” suggesting that memory is neither a matter of agency nor ascendancy into subjectivity as presence. The “loud sign” is the insistence of the materiality of language key to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry aesthetics, but the stuck dice indicates that at some point the “seemingly random” combination of signs must come to an end giving a double sense of coup de dés, the coup being both throw and cut. This necessary outer edge is coupled with the violence of ascertaining inner edges or limits within the poem, ripping numbers from the pile to place them as central, only to find that each piece in the middle is itself a compound, has its own need for a middle, whilst at the same time being the nexus of a number of trace possibilities which systematically undermine its thematic centrality. This is the violent manner by which America works as a theme in Ashbery’s “America.”
This leads to a basic duality of slippage from the monadic myth of presence indicated by the dynamic sublime, “one under a star,” to the endless forks and combinations, paratactic detours which constitute the postmodern poetic unit as I have described it here today. The fork does not “go on” as Ashbery sees it, but it goes off into a infinite number of possible phrasal combinations that lead ultimately to the mythic realm of the star, but the star itself is never complete in and of itself, there is always room for one more under the star. One cannot escape the deconstructive power of the supplemental unit.
In the following section, 23, Hejinian notes, “the total is an impudent frame around / the air”[iii] and I would now like to be equally impudent by closing this piece with a few suggested frames the main one being the relation between the frame and the phrases it encloses. The postmodern poetic unit is a framed rather than an enclosed form and the relation between the frame and the contents is mediated through the optimum unit of the phrase which is midway between two sublime discourses. Below it is the syntactic and above the ideological, and the means by which the phrase negotiates between these two heterogeneous realms, and I must stress they are not oppositional here merely incommensurable to each other, establishes what kind of text unit one is dealing with but also what kind of phrase. In the phrase the writer and reader meet as subjects of equal uncertainty and whilst writing is an aid to memory in allowing access to the archival subject, like the actual painting “The Tennis Court Oath,” by David, this will never be finished off.
[i]Lyn Hejinian, Writing is An Aid to Memory (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1996) Preface. Originally published in 1978.
[ii]Hejinian section 22.
[iii]Hejinian section 23.